Tripper Johnson took a unique path to college football. Johnson went from a three-sport standout at Newport High School (Bellevue, WA) to a first round draft choice by the Baltimore Orioles, before finally landing at Montlake as a Division-I football player. Playing Major League Baseball was always his dream, but after eight seasons in the minors, never advancing past Class AA, Johnson hit a fork in the road of both his life and career.
"After you play six years of minor league baseball you are considered a minor league free agent and you can sign somewhere else," explained Johnson. "I ended up signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates for a summer and again was a free agent. There wasn't too much interest out there and I told my agent at the time that I've always wanted to play college football."
Wanting to play college football after being out of the game for eight years is one thing, making it happen is completely another.
"I contacted my old high school coach at Newport and he contacted the current coach Mike Miller. Mike is good friends with Luke Huard who works with the Huskies. So one thing led to the next and I had an interview with coach [Tyrone] Willingham. It went really well and they gave me the chance to walk on during spring practices."
As a senior in high school Johnson was a first team All-KingoCo football, baseball and basketball player. On the gridiron he was selected as a first-team defense back and second-team running back, earning scholarship offers to both Washington and Washington State. On the diamond he owns nearly every Newport High School offensive record, signed a letter of intent to play at Washington, then was selected 32nd over all in the MLB draft before signing a reported $1.5 million dollar signing bonus. He had plenty of options and a difficult choice to make.
"It was really tough," explained Johnson about the decision. "Coming down to the end of my senior year, and throughout my whole entire life, I thought I was going to go to UW and play football and baseball. When the draft was coming up I thought my life could drastically change and it did. I wasn't expecting it; I always thought I was going to be a Husky my whole life. When the draft came around, I got selected in a situation that was high enough and the money was right, that I couldn't turn it down."
Not many people get to live out their dream, but Johnson now gets to live out both of his dreams of being a professional baseball player and Husky football player. But jumping into Division-I football is not like riding a bike and he has the bruises to prove it.
"These guys are so strong and fast and you know they're going to hit you hard," explained Johnson about making the transition. "Taking that first big hit was kind of a surprise. I kind of had a headache. I hadn't taken a hit like that in a long time. It was a shock to get such a big first hit." Johnson continued about the talent around him at Washington. "I always thought I was athletic enough to figure things out, but these athletes here at U-Dub and in the Pac-10 are second to none. They're very impressive. These are some of the best athletes in the country, so I'm trying to do my best to keep up."
So has it been what he expected?
"It's what I expected, I knew it was going to be one of the hardest things I've ever done. Every practice and every meeting we have is very intense and very focused. Baseball is a much more laid back sport. I guess it's probably just the mentality of having a long season, played over six, seven months. You have to pace yourself, you can't get too excited, too hyped up and you just have to stay calm because you are going to go through a week or two of playing really bad baseball. That's one thing about football, probably the biggest difference is how intense it is."
Johnson does however have an ace in his pocket. You don't play eight years as a professional athlete without picking up some tricks. Most notably, his body and mind got use to the daily grind that comes with the highest level of athletic competition.
"Being older and playing a professional sport, I've come along way. You learn how to treat your body right because you have to get sleep and eat right. Maturity wise, it's one of those things where you can't get too high and get too low, you've just got to try and stay at an even keel. I know I'm going to make mistakes, I made a bunch of mistakes in the spring and fall, but you learn from them. When I was a younger athlete, those mistakes really got under my skin, but being an older athlete, being through those life experiences of having those ups and downs, I can recover and just kind of forget about them."
The selective memory is a good thing because it's becoming increasingly plausible that he will see early playing time in his first season. There has been a rash of injuries with the safeties this fall and even though they should be ready to go for the opening game, Johnson knows he's only an injury away from staring down a Pac-10 offense.
"It's one of those things where you have to prepare every snap. If someone goes out, you've got to be ready to step up. You've got to take every rep whether you're first team, second team, or third string, like you're going to be the starter. A couple of guys have gone out [this fall] and I want those guys to get healthy because they're good players. I'm just trying to prepare the best way I can."
So far Johnson's best has impressed and he's earned the praise of the coaching staff this fall. They have actually flirted with the idea of having him return kicks because of his sure hands, decision-making and consistency. However, as the dream of playing in his first Pac-10 game is quickly becoming a reality, even a former professional athlete can get nervous.
"I'm a little nervous and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. I'm a little nervous, but I'm also very anxious. This is an exciting time, just to come back. We're starting to prepare for Oregon and starting to look at their game tapes and stuff like that. I'm very excited and to be honest, I'm nervous, but I'm just excited to get out there."
One thing that has helped calm his nerves is looking at the others before him that have paved similar paths.
"I know there are some guys that have done it - Chris Weinke is probably the best example. I would have loved to talk to him sometime and see what he has to say about his whole experience, because we've done the same kind of thing. I think he did an awesome thing; he went back and followed his dream even though he was older, just like me. He made it to the NFL and had a pretty good career college wise. It's pretty impressive that he made it that far and followed his dream like that."
Much like Weinke, Johnson also has aspirations of playing in the NFL.
"I'd love to play in the NFL. I don't know if that's a realistic goal and the first step is playing here and competing at this level. I think just like the other hundred guys in the locker room, we'd all love to play in the NFL some day. Is it realistic? I don't know, I've been away from the game and I've got a lot to learn, but that's something I'd love to do."
First, Johnson has a very realistic goal of getting his college degree. He took college courses throughout his time in professional baseball and is nearing his junior year academically.
"First thing first, I want to get my degree; I want to get my education here. And if I just happen to get a chance to play past the college level, it would be a dream come true. But first I do need to get my education. I'm going to apply to the business school, so I'm either going to get my business or economics degree."
Gone is the struggle of advancing through a MLB minor league system. The pine tar, umpires and paychecks have been replaced with film studies, tackling drills, and cheerleaders. Learning to be a college football player, getting an education and just being one of the guys is now Johnson's life, but one of those things might be harder than the rest.
"Yeah, they heckle me and they give me a hard time, but they're also really impressed," explained Johnson about fitting in with his new teammates. "They always want to know what happened with my career in the minor leagues. They're always asking me what it was like. For the most part they joke around with me, give me a hard time, but also at the same time, they're pretty impressed and want to know about my life."
No matter what lies ahead, Tripper Johnson is happy with his life; past, present, and future.
"I'm really content. This has always been my dream. I gave baseball my best shot and I have no regrets. I did everything I could, I worked hard and it was just one of those things that didn't work out. They said I was talented enough to make it and play in the big leagues, but a lot of guys are talented enough that don't make it, so I'm content. I gave it everything I've got and it just didn't work out."
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